In the wake of a 2013 N.C. General Assembly session where many educators think they took it on the chin, the state’s teachers should get ready to throw a few haymakers of their own.
That was the message Saturday to local members of the profession from the leader of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), an advocacy organization that works for teachers — including lobbying on their behalf in the Legislature.
However, the recent General Assembly session provided a slap in the face in that regard, NCAE President Rodney Ellis told members of the Surry County, Mount Airy and Elkin school systems gathered in the cafeteria of Meadowview Middle School.
“It’s a new world for us — the leadership has changed,” the visiting speaker, who is traversing North Carolina to rally support for educators, said of the Republican-controlled state government.
Not only did teachers receive no raise for the sixth year, measures that threaten the future of public education emerged, Ellis said. Included was legislation that undermines the tenure, or long-term contracting, of teachers, while at the same time introducing vouchers to aid the development of competing institutions, namely charter schools.
“We got the worst of both worlds, quite honestly,” Ellis said. “Politics ruled the day.”
The changes collectively will put North Carolina, once a national leader in public education, at or near the bottom of U.S. rankings in per-pupil expenditures and salaries, the NCAE chief said.
“We are quite honestly a laughingstock for the direction we are headed.”
McCrory, Others Targeted
Saturday’s appearance in Surry County by Ellis — an eighth-grade language arts teacher in Winston-Salem — represents one of the ways public educators are seeking to strike back.
The meeting at Meadowview Middle School, which unified NCAE factions in the three public school systems in Surry for what was believed to be the first time — represents a starting point. Ellis said similar rallies are being held statewide to drum up support for various initiatives in response to legislative actions.
One involves mobilizing for the 2014 election, when state senators and representatives will be seeking new two-year terms.
“Next November (2014),” we are taking names, said Ellis, who added that it will be important for educators to get out and vote — since only 24 percent of the NCAE membership actually did so during the last election in 2010.
“If I have to come to Mount Airy and scoop you people up, we are going to vote,” the NCAE president said. “We are going to the polls en masse next year.”
Yet Ellis said this does not mean singling out Republicans, pointing out that the NCAE is a non-political group with a third of its membership representing the GOP. The organization, said to have nearly 60,000 members, established relationships with various Republicans during the last session — “but unfortunately they weren’t the leaders,” Ellis said.
“We’re going to vote pro-education candidates in, regardless of political affiliations,” he pledged. “We’re going to identify some candidates on both sides of the aisle who need to go home, and we’re going to help them get there.”
One definite target will be first-term Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. “He did nothing for public education,” Ellis explained, vowing that the NCAE will do everything possible to make sure McCrory does not win a second term, a statement greeted by applause.
On the other hand, the state’s chief executive did advocate spending $230,000 to remodel restrooms in the Executive Mansion, which the NCAE president referred to Saturday in his lambasting of certain state officials. “They’re out here fixing toilets and things of that nature, but they can’t find money to fund education.”
Ellis said he had tried to work with the leadership in Raleigh all session, but realized once the state budget was adopted that it contained all the “bad things.”
That led him to take part in the first of a series of Moral Monday protests to show dissatisfaction with legislative policies, and be arrested that day.
Another way the NCAE plans to fight is by filing lawsuits challenging the new measures related to tenure and school vouchers.
Ellis charged that the tenure provision pushed through by lawmakers seeks to discourage long-term service by teachers in favor of a system of one-year contracts that prevents educators from reaching the top $50,000 salary level. There is an emphasis on merit raises instead, which the NCAE leader says has proven ineffective in other states.
“They want the ability to be able to kick teachers out when they want to,” Ellis charged, calling it a “revolving door” approach. “Stack ‘em deep and teach ‘em cheap” is the prevailing philosophy, he said.
On Saturday, Ellis advised teachers to delay signing contracts until the outcome of the suit.
However, he said the biggest threat is the introduction of school vouchers, which will promote the proliferation of charter schools that divert resources from public education.
This action has led to sites being eyed all around the state for charter institutions, which Ellis believes is profit-motivated and not concerned for students’ best welfare.
“Somebody has to step up to the plate and fight for it,” he said of public education.
During Saturday’s meeting, which included many comments and questions from the educators attending as well as the remarks from Ellis, there was concern that teachers aren’t universally involved in fighting for their futures.
Some “fear for their jobs,” said one educator in the audience. “They’re keeping their heads low and doing what they’re supposed to do.”
“There’s total fear in the schools,” another agreed.
Dave Diamont, a teacher and head football coach at East Surry High School who has logged 45 years in public education, pointed to another factor: that educators are simply “too busy.”
“Teachers are just covered up with stuff,” Diamont said. “Every time I turn around, I’ve got to go to another workshop to teach me how to teach.”
However, Diamont added that many of his counterparts just aren’t as intense as they should be. “I don’t see the passion,” he said, mentioning that 50 to 100 educators should have been at Saturday’s meeting rather than the 30 who were there.
“I can’t understand why other people aren’t as ticked off as I am,” Diamont said to a round of applause.
Liesa Hawks, a school counselor at Cedar Ridge Elementary who heads the Surry County schools’ NCAE component, said Saturday’s gathering represented a good beginning.
“We need to get together and be proud of being educators,” Hawks said.
“Now is the time, if it’s ever been.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.